Primoz Roglic finally gets round to winning | a recap of Stages 16-21 of the 2023 Giro d’Italia

Marco Alpozzi/LaPresse

Primoz Roglic famously lost the Tour de France in a mountain time trial. He was first overall at the bottom but only second by the top. This time he did the reverse, albeit with a gut-churning pause halfway up when he dropped his chain and came to a complete standstill. That stationary moment must have torn open a few old scars, but it didn’t prove costly in the end.

After three weeks of attrition in the form of crashes, illness and not-being-quite-as-good-as-some-of-the-other-guys, Stage 20 almost felt like the first burst of meaningful racing for the maglia rosa. A long, long stint of caution and self-preservation and then it all came down to a 45-minute head-to-head between Primoz Roglic and Geraint Thomas.

The 2023 Giro was a truly epic sporting event that was somehow characterised by remarkably little sporting action.

The final push

As predicted in my previous recap, the challenges came from the terrain more than the weather in these last few stages. The week began with Bruno Amirail technically in the lead, then three credible contenders – Geraint Thomas, Primoz Roglic and Joao Almeida – within seconds of each other. Beyond that, it was hard to see anyone else getting into the mix.

Stage 16 brought the first summit finish and the day was sufficiently brutal that there were just five riders left in the favourites’ group with 7km to go. One of these was Irish rider Eddie Dunbar, who bravely endured the agreeable third week weather after revelling in the previous week’s downpours to finish the Giro seventh overall. This was by far the 26-year-old’s best result and he’s now hoping to do something similar – or ideally better – in the Vuelta a Esapana at the end of summer.

Flipping back to that stage though, by 3.5km to go, Almeida and Thomas had jumped ahead and made a gap. The Portuguese rider pipped Thomas to the line by which point they’d opened a 25s gap on Roglic and Dunbar.

This clarified the overall to what we’d all kind of understood it to be anyway as it left us with the main three riders within 30s of each other and the next best at 2m50s.

Stage 17 was a flat day and then Stage 18 brought a slightly stronger looking Roglic. He’d not looked not his best earlier in the stage but turned out to be bullshitting. This was clear once he’d set team-mate Sepp Kuss to work with 9km to go because Sepp Kuss can do serious damage on a mountain.

On one of the steeper stretches, Almeida – who’d won Stage 16 – was dropped. Everyone was dropped, in fact, except for Thomas, Dunbar and of course Roglic.

With 7km to go, Roglic attacked. These kinds of thing happen on almost every mountain stage, but it’s still something to marvel at. Just imagine you’re riding at a pace only four of you can hold and yet one of you still has scope to accelerate. Initially, only Thomas could follow until Kuss, riding more steadily, caught them and went to the front to set the pace again. This didn’t last long though. Roglic and Thomas carried on and finished together, 21s ahead of Almeida.

Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

At this point things were looking pretty great for Thomas. It doesn’t really matter if you’re second-best every day if you’re second-best to different rivals. It actually works out quite well.

However, on Stage 19 – another summit finish – Roglic was again his companion.

The Welshman actually got a gap in the last 200m and for a moment it looked like he’d gain a few seconds. It was one of those gradients where 200m is an awfully long way though. Roglic got out of the saddle, sprinted up to Thomas… then past him. He gained 3s – but also an ominous air of maybe having just a little bit more in the tank than his rival.

Cronoscalata

Alberto Contador – who knows a thing or two about Grand Tours, having won all three multiple times – reckoned this was the hardest mountain time trial he’d ever seen in a three-week race. Throw in the fact that it was Stage 20, after the riders had already covered thousands of kilometres (and seemingly about half of them in freezing driving rain) and this course can’t have been an appealing prospect.

As it turned out, despite dropping his chain and stopping dead to put it back on again halfway up, Roglic bested Thomas by 40s. This turned a 26s deficit into a 14s advantage, which sounds narrow, but given the way the time trial went, wasn’t really.

“At least he smashed me,” said Thomas afterwards, philosophically.

Roglic had a few things to say too.

I’ve written before about how the Slovenian is among my favourite riders for his incredible ability to suck all the drama and emotion out of an interview with his matter-of-fact responses. If you’re a fan of bathos – and I am – then a Roglic interview is almost unfailingly a treat.

Asked about dropping his chain – a moment of high drama when not just the outcome of this Giro but surely his own future mental health was at stake given his previous experiences of mountain time trials – he replied: “I dropped the chain. I put it back on and restarted.”

Better was to come a day later once he’d officially won the race. “Have you realised what it means to win the Giro d’Italia?” asked the interviewer.

What followed was a towering Godzilla of a pause as our man chewed this over and carefully weighed his response. The sun inched through the sky, the shadows lengthened and finally he arrived at his conclusion and shared it with the world: “Not really.”

Stage 21

It took quite a while to arrive at Roglic’s most significant act (the time trial, not that interview answer), but Mark Cavendish waited even longer. Having announced that he will retire at the end of the year, Cav spent the entire race hanging in there, achieving nothing, before taking the stage win in his very last nanosecond riding the Giro d’Italia.

Strikingly, the run-in to the line had seen him lent some assistance by Geraint Thomas, who, if you aren’t aware, rides for an entirely different team these days, but apparently felt it was entirely natural to “help a mate out,” in his own words.

“I asked him half seriously, half jokingly: wouldn’t it be nice to do the lead out for me,” said Cavendish. “And suddenly he yelled: ‘Cav!’ – and he did.”

The Tour de France awaits and potentially a record-breaking 35th stage win that’ll matter an awful lot if it happens and not one jot if it doesn’t.

What’s next?

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This website’s next appointment is the main one. The Tour de France runs from July 1-23. I’ll be back with a preview next month and then I’ll aim for weekly recaps within a day or two of each rest day, which you can sign up to receive by email, if you haven’t already done so.